Hungary is one of the ex-Communist regimes which came out of the Cold War with a democratic parliament, competitive elections, and a relatively good all-round record of governance. It’s said that if a country experiences more than two changes of government after elections, chances are it will stay democratic. Unfortunately, there are now serious questions being raised about the state of Hungary’s democracy. In 2010, 52.73% of the Hungarian public voted for Fidesz, a conservative party. Due to Hungary’s disproportionate electoral system with very few electoral strongholds for parties Fidesz and the minor party KDNP, a fellow conservative party which has been called a vassal of Fidesz, have 68% of the seats, enough to amend the constitution. The government has taken that opportunity by the scruff of the neck, and the new constitution came into force on the 1st of January this year.
Altogether, the Hungarian government has passed (as of late December) 359 laws. That might seem a lot; after all, the British government in roughly the same time has passed somewhere in the region of 33 laws, some of which are very large and complex. But when you look the Australian government, it has passed 226 (although this overstates the amount slightly because a single complex UK bill would be split into several bills if it were to be introduced in Australia) in roughly the same time, which while large is still three-fifths what Hungary has done. But the real worry is what has been in those bills. Princeton’s Kim Lane Scheppele has given a very good overview of this and has spoken on the new constitution, and Reading’s Alan Renwick has written a very good analysis of the electoral changes on his blog and I don’t intend to repeat any of that.
No, what caught my eye was this little titbit in Kim Lane Scheppele’s second article:
To solve the problem of having too many laws to pass, the Fidesz deputies voted on December 30 to amend the rules of parliamentary procedure. From now on, if 2/3rds of the deputies agree, a bill can move directly from its introduction to a final vote without the need for any debate.
I thought I’d go and have a look at the Hungarian parliament’s website to see what was said and what the proposals were. Now, I can’t speak Hungarian so I’m relying on Google Translate so I may have this wrong but the transcript seems to support the statement, with some caveats. A bill is introduced, this (presumably non-debatable?) motion to fast-track it is voted on and a gap of three hours is given for MPs to propose amendments and a newly appointed committee to make recommendations on the bill. Once that three hours is up (other business can be taking place in the chamber for those three hours), each parliamentary faction has fifteen minutes to speak to the bill and talk about their amendments before the final vote on amendments and the bill is taken. So far as I can tell, there is some sort of protection for constitutional legislation and the government says it can only be used six times a year (the opposition says it’s actually twelve times).
To have a bill go from introduction to passage within, say, four or five hours is worrying. Of course, it’s billed as an exceptional urgency procedure, with a two-thirds majority as a safeguard. Except it’s no safeguard when you have a parliamentary majority of 68% and a caucus that doesn’t seem to rebel much. There is some comment which is hard to interpret, but which seems to say that many procedures required a four-fifths majority to execute, and the Fidesz government was changing them to two-thirds. This appears to be one of those; Fidesz appears to be sparing no blushes in reducing supermajorities so that it can use them.
Just because a procedure is ‘exceptional’ doesn’t mean it won’t be abused. ‘Urgency’, where debate on a bill either for a stage or, very rarely, the whole bill is taken in one or two sittings, in New Zealand is abused particularly often*, and ‘programme motions’ in the UK House of Commons institutionalise the control of the length of debates by the executive, even if they are usually quite generous (though there are some awful exceptions). There are also simple majority motions in the UK House of Commons and both Australian chambers to ensure that a bill can take all of its stages in one day, but it should be noted that these procedures are used incredibly rarely and the UK’s House of Lords can’t enforce anything like this on its members. It’s also interesting to note that these proposals to change the rules on exceptional urgency… were accorded ‘urgency’ by the Hungarian parliament and dealt with in an extraordinary session of Parliament days before the New Year.
The key thing to consider with any motion that circumvents normal procedure is whether the rules and the culture of the institution will prevent its abuse. In this case, certainly the rules do not prevent its abuse and given the government’s zeal for legislating and the way it seems to be cracking down on media dissent this does not bode well for the culture of the ruling party preventing its abuse, nor the ability of the opposition to exploit any abuse that may take place.